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Dec 22 2010

Chappy Cholidays from Mayim Bialik

By at 8:47 am

Just one of the reasons I could never celebrate Christmas.

Being an American Jew at Christmas-time is not easy. With all due respect to those who celebrate Christmas, for those of us who do not, the flood of Christmas-themed advertisements, commercials, movies, TV specials and incessant Christmas muzak can be pretty overwhelming.

To make matters worse, I have in-laws who partake in Christmas in a BIG way.  My husband converted to Judaism before we got married. He grew up celebrating an “American” Church-less, Jesus-less, religion-less version of Christmas: a decorated tree, a big dinner, and watching football and parades on TV while munching on crackers and those weird cheese balls that have been rolled in chopped pecans. (I could never pass as a gentile–those cheese balls freak me out.)

My husband’s parents have been divorced for about 15 years, and my Mormon-raised mother-in-law gave up Christmas in bits and pieces over the years, eliminating it completely once she decided to convert to Judaism three years ago (that’s a whole other story!). My Baptist-bred father-in-law and his current wife celebrate Christmas enthusiastically in a non-religious way, much as my husband was raised celebrating it. Their home is decorated top to bottom with hundreds of pretty twinkling lights, an impressive collection of Santa snow globes and ornaments brought out of storage for the month of December, awesome blinking Star Trek ornaments adorning a gorgeous, fragrant tree, and hand bedazzled Christmas tablecloths and napkins.

I am tickled to admit I even once saw Santa Claus toilet paper in their guest bathroom during the holidays.

I will not lie and tell you that it was initially easy to celebrate their holiday with them. I was unfamiliar with the customs of Christmas. I call December 24 “erev Christmas” for my own clarity. I did not grow up in a family that showered me with gifts for the holidays, and the extensive gift-giving that goes on at my in-laws’ initially startled me. I felt like the most Jewishy Jew on the planet those first years at my in-laws’. Think Woody Allen imagining himself as the Hasid in “Annie Hall.” I felt like that.

Once my husband and I had children, my in-laws were thrilled and excited to buy our boys gifts at Christmas time. Of course, they love the presents they get, but I initially worried that they would see Christmas as “better” than Hanukkah and thus, ultimately lead to their rejection of Judaism (and me). I also worried that my in-laws would see me as ungrateful or as a “Scrooge” if I asked them to tone down the gift-giving.

My husband and I struggled with the gift issue ad nauseum: should we give them gifts for their holiday or ours? What wrapping paper does one choose?! My husband decided that the spirit of the holidays should be the giving, so he holds that we give his father Hanukkah gifts in Hanukkah wrapping to show the spirit of our holiday, and accept their Christmas gifts in Christmas wrapping with no reciprocation, since it’s their holiday.

I don’t know that I am entirely comfortable with this arrangement, especially since Hanukkah floats about the calendar erratically, sometimes causing me to send gifts by mail at the end of November or even after Christmas, despite the fact that we travel to see them at Christmas time and it would save me postage to just give them their darn gifts then!

A lot of my early anxiety I can now identify as protective paranoia, and I have found that presenting Judaism to our children is enjoyable, rewarding, and effortless, even in the face of tempting things like lots of presents. There are Jews who observe Christmas without the religious aspects it was designed to honor, and if it works for them, that’s fine. For us, what works is consistently emphasizing our ethnic and religious identity as different from those who celebrate Christmas, even if those people happen to be your grandparents. What we tell our older son is that Grandma and Grandpa celebrate Christmas but we don’t. Period. We don’t say that they are wrong, or that we are right, we just say that this is how it is in our family.

For now, our son loves getting presents at Christmas, but he loves it in the context of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. He does not identify as celebrating Christmas and I am telling you now: he will tell your child that Santa isn’t real, so keep clear of him if you hold that myth dear to your heart.

What works for us is being honest with our boys, being engaged in the lives of all of our family as much as we can be, and being ultimately grateful for the abundance of love and affection that we are blessed to have, especially in a nation and a world where many go without fresh water, food, or shelter, much less an intact home with healthy caregivers.

Our family is not Rockwellian, and it’s not picture perfect, but it’s ours. This is our boys’ heritage – all of it: the Southern Baptist part, the Mormon part, and the part that still has one foot stuck in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and on the boats that brought my Grandparents across the ocean to a place of struggle, success, and yes, Christmas.

America holds the promise of so much: so much excess, so much confusion, and so much mixing of people and their identities. The identities, though, do not melt as in a pot; rather, they are tossed together in a joyous raucousness, each part wholly distinguishable from the next, but together creating a medley that is unique and surprising and beautiful in its complexity.

Happy holidays from our mixed up family to yours.


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13 Responses to Chappy Cholidays from Mayim Bialik

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Vegan cheese balls are delicious!

    Vegan Cheese Ball
    Ingredients:

    * 8 ounces vegan cream cheese
    * 1 tablespoon vegan mayonnaise
    * 1 teaspoon vegan Worcestershire sauce
    * 1/3 cup nutritional yeast
    * 1 teaspoon garlic powder
    * 1 teaspoon onion powder
    * Sliced almonds to coat

    Spread almonds across a plate, clean cutting board, or piece of plastic wrap. In a medium bowl, gently combine cream cheese, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, and onion powder. Using your hands, form the mixture into a ball. It will be soft. Roll the ball in the sliced almonds and wrap the cheese ball in plastic wrap or clean cheesecloth to maintain shape. Refrigerate a few hours or overnight, plate, and serve.

  2. MangoMel says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I could have been reading about my family. Although my kids know that we do not celebrate Christmas (I also had to remind them not to spill the beans at school that Santa is not real), they are secure enough in their Jewish identity that they can celebrate Christmas with their grandparents.

  3. Josh says:

    Mayim: those cheeseballs can get worse (better?) – down south they’re often rolled in pepperoni slices. A few years ago our friends who, bless them, really wanted to respect our kathruth, rolled them in dried beef instead. Without the meat they were actually pretty delicious.

    It’s pretty cute when our two-year-old says, “Merry Christmas” to everyone she meets and it’s adorable when she adds, “Happy Hannukah.” She knows most of the words to Jingle Bells and loves to look at the Christmas tree. I’m proud of her growing cultural literacy and impressed that one so little is learning to navigate what Mordecai Kaplan called the “Two civilizations.”

    Today, she likes Christmas but loves Hannukah and everything related to Judaism (we have no idea how or why, she’s been like that since she was a newborn). I guess we just need to have faith that it’ll continue.

    Happy Holidays! :)

  4. Deni Bell says:

    I’m Christian and cheeseballs have never been a tradition in our family. I admit that I have NEVER had a hankering for matzo ball soup or matzo crackers but it’s not a reason I not Jewish! ;-) Love your articles, keep it up :-)

  5. Lori says:

    I have many friends who are Orthodox converts. Some spend the day after Christmas with the non-Jewish part of the family, so the grandparents do not feel abandoned, or that their kids have abandoned them.

    I have always found that if children find their own heritage and culture meaningful and rich, they will not hanker after what others do. My kids think Purim beats Halloween, for example. The trick is making sure they truly understand; you can’t say, “Because we’re Jewish, that’s why,” without explaining what being Jewish means.

    Everyone should have lots of fun at this time of year, and at least benefit from the post-Christmas sales!

  6. Dear Sir’s:
    In the beginning I was the only one of the Jewish faith in this community. How ever now I’m among nine others here. They all know to keep it quiet of what they are, most put up christmas lights, one or two have a christmas tree but it’s all just a show, or camouflage.
    Yet every year we all light our Menorah’s for Chanukah, and sing our songs and or prayers.
    My christian neghbors who know about me haven’t been too nice, but when the housing market goes back up to where it was I’ll sell out and move to Israel.
    I pray that Hashem should keep all well.
    Shalom, Shalom, Yosef

  7. yitzy says:

    On the other hand, the Israeli’s celebtrate new year’s eve as “sylvester”, more so with over 2 million russians (not all jews) who came over the last 20 years. Considering that he was, how should I put it, “not a great friend of the Jews” it’s really sad.

  8. YItzy says:

    much easier to be in Israel and celebrate my birthday on “erev christmas”

  9. PS: You would not catch this gentile even thinking about ingesting one of those nasty cheese ball things. Whoever invented them must be very warped, lol!

  10. I’m a Christian and I get overwhelmed and fed up with the insanity that is the Christmas season! I think you have the right strategy with your boys, honesty is definitely the way to go. And it sounds like you have a working system, I say just relax and go with it =)

  11. Mthousemama says:

    Its nice to read that others are trying to figure out how to handle the close relations that handle x-mass. For us that would be my parents, cause I converted, after I had my daughter I was kind of controlling trying hard not to let her get confused but eventually I realized that as long as I explain that we don’t celebrate and they do, she and my son would not be harmed in helping my parents enjoy their holiday. Its a balance but this year she helped with the decorating of their tree and might even stop by on x-mass…maybe.

    As for Santa, I’ve decided to tell her the truth too but to do it in a way that she might not go running to her friends to ruin it for them, such as some people like to pretend he is real, its fun for your friends parents and for your friends, so don’t tell them it’s a secret…but most of her good friends celebrate x-mass….

  12. Susan Owens says:

    I really appreciated your viewpoint. As a Christian “United Methodist” who is disgusted by the commercialization of Christmas, I share many of your views. This is supposed to be a Holy time, thus “Happy Holy-days”. We forget many of our traditions are to remember the Holy and Mystery. That is why I would like my grandchildren to celebrate the Jewish Holy Days, because Jesus did so! Also, to celebrate Jesus birth in a respectful way. Thanks for the view point.

  13. Lisa says:

    Great post. And I just have to say, I am a Christmas celebrating Christian and those cheeseballs freak me out. Now there is a lemon cream cheese one rolled in graham cracker crumbs that took some SERIOUS convincing for me to try but it was A-MAZING!

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